The 80/20 Project Manager

Posted: March 31, 2009 in Project Management
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Professionals’ characters are made up of two components; the Technical Skills and the Human/Managerial Skills. These two categories of skills are competing against each other. If someone becomes more of a technical style professional, his managerial style will be affected, I would say, adversely. So, what do we think is the right composite of a successful project manager? Are employers recognizing this important composite character in any Project Manager they seek to employ? And how a technical person can be converted into a good Project Manager?

“A Technical Expert Wanted” is what some job postings should be titled nowadays rather than “A Project Manager Wanted” especially for employers who do not appreciate the 80/20 skill composite of a Project Manager. To me, it is disappointing to see a posting seeking a project manager while more than 90% of the job requirements are in technical specialties and only 10% are of human or managerial skills! If the first and foremost job requirement is someone who has 15+ years of experience in a technical specialty, then you need a technical expert or a SME who will be inundated with solving and dealing with technical issues during the project lifecycle. Well, then who is going to manage your project; manage your team, manage your stakeholders’ expectations, and balance your project’s competing demands of scope, time, cost, quality, HR, and risks? Who is going to keep integrity and harmony amongst team members to achieve project goals? Who is going to communicate and report on performance? The answer is “Mr. Project Manager” but not the one you are seeking in your posting. Both PM and SME would never exist in one person. So, if I were one of these employers, I would seek two posts; “A Technical Expert” and “A Project Manager”, but I would never jeopardize the success of my project by asking for a Project Manager to play both roles.

Best practices show that a successful project manager has to have his skills composed of at least 80% human and managerial skills and at most 20% technical skills. I believe that bringing a project to success is a collaborative effort in which all stakeholders are involved. If stakeholders do not find the Leader to inspire and integrate them to achieve the project’s vision, the project would fail. This challenge for a PM is not achieved by sitting for hours and hours in a closed room solving a technical problem in the project, it rather is achieved by living the project with team members. Hence, communications is the paramount skill a PM should possess.

Having said that, a technical person can be a good project manager by acquiring the right managerial skills required to lead his project team. On the other hand, he should be kept away from being involved in technical issues, and even not leaving a room for him to be attracted to technical issues. Some good employers assign each project manager up to 4 projects at a time rather than having him manage one project and doing other technical tasks. By this they help him build up his human and managerial skills that are precious to their projects success.

Comments
  1. Lundi Kumalo says:

    That’s a really good article Mohammed. I totally agree! In a way the Project Manager should be the Captain of the ship, not the navigator, engineer, cook and deck hand. This way he maintains his objectivity in terms of the good of the mission.

  2. umahmood76 says:

    I agree Mohammad with your assessment here. All too often, companies (incl. those in solutions development) tend to forget the difference between a “Development Manager” vs. a “Project Manager”.

  3. Mohammad Rifai says:

    Thanks for the articles.
    Yes, totally agree with you Mohammed. In the company I work now, we can see the different between the project leaded by a Project Manager and leaded by a technical expert.
    The results show different. You don’t need to guess which one is better!

  4. iammarchhare says:

    Good article! This topic is obviously on everyone’s minds. I wrote a somewhat similar article about The Most Important Project Management Skill.

  5. Ramesh says:

    I couldn’t agree more. But in today’s “lean and and mean” environment, a Project Manager is expected to fulfil a fair degree of technical responsibilities as well.

    If a PM were allowed to focus solely on Project Management tasks, the chances of project being better managed, in terms of costs, schedule and resources are greater.

  6. Markus says:

    In my humble opinion it is hard to teach something in a class room situation that is heavily context dependent. The reason for me saying this is the results of my dissertation that focused on how deviations are managed in projects. Among the results is that deviations from the plan is constantly occuring all over the project making deviation managed an everyday task. The project managers ability to stay on top of things is not necessarily associated to the ability to plan but rather to make events stick out of the plan. That is, by emphasizing the deviation (the event, i.e. a technical malfunctioning) the project manager ensures that he or her get access to other resources.

    I think that the advice to run a simulation is good. Maybe it do not cover the entire spectrum of a project but at least it touches upon a lot of things. The value of this is further emphasized by the results from my teaching of undergraduate and graduate students.

    For another interesting remark on the debate see Mintzbergs “Managers, not MBAs”

    If anyone is interested you find my dissertation at http://www.markushaellgren.com In the beginning there is a short summary and at the end it is a longer one.

    /Markus

  7. Mohd–Well said and articulated

    When I recruit PMs, I find many Tech Managers who consider themselves scaling up but alas… they do not reach there…

    Not sure if PMP certified guys will make the Grade

    I will also be pleased if you can give some ideas on how to assess the Man management capabilities. During the interviews some of them score well but fail on the job

  8. Rajan PMP says:

    What Mohammad has brought is absolutely true with a wonderful insight

    I would like to add just one thing…. that good project management leadership…. is the ability to contribute effectively to your team when needed most.

    It may even be a technical solution at times. Therefore it is vital to build a perception about one’s expertise ( by constant learning of course) in front of his/ her stakeholders to be successful.

  9. There is a way companies can try to balance the need for PM Skills and Tech Skills, with the cost of having 2 people for a project. It is not a perfect solution, and it mayn’t work in all situations. The option is have a Sr Project Manager oversee 3-6 projects & mentor those 3-6 Tech Managers.

    –Seyed Ibrahim, MBA, PMP

  10. Nancy Northrup says:

    This article reminds me of a great job that I had a number of years ago. I was given the opportunity to project manage a group that was two years behind on requirements. The customers were furious. I was hired by executive management and reported to a Director who had not yet met me. At our introduction he informed me that I was the wrong person for the job because I was not an Oracle programmer. Six months later he apologized. This team needed someone who could provide them with the structure to do their jobs. I did that utilizing good project management skills. Using my project management skills, I took this team from frantic chaos to having enough extra time that I grew then into an internal consulting team that helped others achieve best in class project management.

  11. Ashiq Khader says:

    Both technical expertise/SME and management vision should be brought together to drive a project to success. It is ‘wildly’ different skills, and appreciating coexistance of this is essential. Over my experiences working across 3 different continents, on various development methodologies, my obervation is roles/designations differ, however they need to lie with 2 different individuals, one a SME and another a PM. I very much agree with Mohammed. Good article…

  12. iammarchhare says:

    @Markus: Congratulations on defending your thesis! Is there a copy available in English?

    @Ashiq: I like the way you phrase that. There does need to be a certain amount of convergence. A technical background is necessary for a technical project manager, but the soft skills of a PM should outweigh the technical. A PM must be good at selling, giving vision, negotiating and motivating. When a PM is doing things like coding or configuring, they are not doing the “management” pieces as well.

    One other thing that is sometimes overlooked is that having a PM that is involved in the day-to-day technical details can stunt the growth of the team. The technical team members might not be as motivated to find answers to problems on their own. This can be a delicate balance, and the expectation that a PM will also be the SME will lead to micromanagement.

  13. Charmaine Belfanti says:

    This is true of any management role versus technical role. A good nurse or doctor is not necessarily a good manager. A good teacher is not necessarily a good manager. A good operations person may not translate to a good manager. It is a different skill set. A manager needs the skills to provide a vision, ask the right questions, coach, motivate, get the best out of the team, handle the politics. They absolutely need good people skills and the ability to develop positive relationships. The manager has the technical experts reporting to them and seeks advice from them. I do not have an IT technical background but am managing the implementation of e-systems. I do have the ability to pull people together and am a good planner. Saying that I am in an environment where this is unusual and others think it “strange” and believe it should be an “IT” expert. I also note that many recruiters ask for the technical expertise however, I repeat, it is a different skill set.

  14. Horace Lindsay says:

    I think you comment is timely, and I completely agree with your point of view. I am seeing more advertising for Technical Project Managers, and often wondered about the success rate of these project.
    To some extent, Companies hiring decision, are budget driven, and shortsighted in their beleif that a Technical PM would provide expertised as a SME and a PM for less dollars, than hiring a PM and a SME.

  15. Syed Atif Faheem, PMP says:

    Its really a good article, i have seen lots of job interviews in which employer tries to find technical skills of a seasoned project manager, while ignoring his human / managerial skills. This article is very useful for PMs and the employers to clarify their misconceptions regarding role of a project manager.

  16. Gary Lucas says:

    Obviously there two schools of thought here. From my perspective it is inexcusible for not to have a fully qualified Project Manager on a project. I have worked with Techncial Project manangers who grow into the role of Project Manager without learning the skills necessary to keep a project on schedule and budget. The scenario usually leads a project plan that is dumped at the first time of a problem. Technical Project Managers tend to run back to what they know and that is to let techncial issues become the driving factor within a project. When in fact a these issues can be resolved through better planning and following the plan from the start. Yes, the Project Manager needs to be familar with the technical of the project, but only to the point of being able to communicate the high-level deliverables to the stakeholders. To often funding drives the decision to hire a Technical Project Manager or a pure Project Manager. I have had several contracts where I had to go in an try and clean up a project that has gone terribly wrong through this type of staffing. 80/20 is a dead-on assessment of where Project Managers need to be. Well done Mohammed!

  17. lubna says:

    i agree with you Mohd, you always need someone to handle the details and someone to have the upper look, and link the these details together.
    Good one, thanks.

  18. Bob Wartman says:

    This supports my contention that a strong point of mine as a Project Manager is that my knowledge base is a mile wide, and a foot deep.

    While I don’t need to be able to write code, troubleshoot circuit boards or pore a concrete slab, I do need to be able to discuss these activities and identify when they are not being done well.

  19. I fully agree with Mohammed, An individual can never do justice to both roles either he can work with the developement team to make sure delivery is done or he can do planning/Project management. This is a common prob with small medium companies where they want an individual who can do both which is near to impossible..

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